Before and during the US Civil War, tens of thousands of slaves made their way out of slavery on what was nicknamed the Underground Railroad. It wasn’t a railroad. It was a secret escape route that took slaves from the Deep South across the Mason-Dixon line and beyond.
The slaves were assisted by people known as “conductors” who transported their precious cargo by clandestine means, all the dangerous miles to freedom. And it was Ms. Harriet Tubman who was the greatest single conductor in the history of the Underground Railroad.
An escaped slave herself, and often referred to as “Moses” for her chain-breaking efforts, Tubman was responsible for leading nearly a thousand people to freedom, including her siblings, parents, and numerous nieces and nephews. And though she journeyed deep into slave territories many times with a huge bounty on her head, she was never caught.
She said, “I did something most train conductors can’t never say. I never run my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.” She credited her success to two things. First, she believed God’s divine protection hovered over her and those placed into her care.
And second, once a slave came into her custody, no matter how afraid or demoralized that person might become on the hazardous journey, she never let them return to their chains. She would say to them, with all the resolve her tiny, five-foot frame could muster, “You will be free…or you will die.”
You will be free. This has been the motto of freedom fighters from Harriet Tubman and Patrick Henry to William Wallace and Nelson Mandela. Of course, who can think of freedom without hearing the iconic words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoken more than 50 years ago: “When we let freedom ring…we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children…will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.’”
Freedom is God’s intention for all of his children; for all people. The theological word for freedom is “ransom,” and it was a favorite term of the Apostle Paul in the New Testament. In Paul’s day, slavery was as common as in the American South in the 1800s. Ancient society, being what it was, forced the poor, orphaned, weak, conquered, and otherwise discriminated against into servitude. Chains were a constant until the slave’s life was wrung out by hard labor.
The exception to this state of affairs was adoption. A tradesman or head of household could, graciously, adopt a slave – no matter his or her age – as a son or daughter. This ended the injustice and granted to the adoptee all the rights and privileges of family. It was a revolution of status and a literal salvation. It was ransom.
Ransom means, in its most literal form, “To remove from the marketplace.” It is a term straight from the slave trader’s auction block. For someone to be ransomed in that day meant that they had been liberated from bondage. They had been removed from the auction, or in the immediate context of most of Paul’s writings, they had been transacted from a house slave to an honored child of the household.
What God has lovingly planned and what Jesus has dramatically accomplished is far more than a change in the human perspective; it is an actual change of status. It is more than the alleviation of the feeling of hopelessness; it is the alleviation of actual hopelessness. It is not psychosomatic therapy; it is actual rescue from slavery – in all its varied forms.
Spiritual, emotional, psychological, and physical: All aspects of captivity are eradicated in the liberty of Christ. In the elegant words of Placide Cappeau, “Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother; and in his name all oppression shall cease.” Put more bluntly, as Harriet Tubman would say it: “You will be free.” May it be so for all of God’s children.